Friendly Fire: Analyzing Canada Soccer's CANMNT 2020 scheduling and formation questions

With Canada yet to organize any friendlies, along with the consistent Alphonso Davies at left back conundrum, we set out to answer both when and how Canada might play when the calendar flips to 2020.

When will the friendlies arrive?

It’s been quiet on the Canada Men’s National Team front as of late, with no news to report on any 2020 friendlies, as there doesn’t yet appear to be a clear plan to catch El Salvador for the 6th and final spot in the Hexagonal for World Cup Qualifying. 

With time slowly ticking down until the windows in which Canada is expected to play friendlies arrive, allowing them to push through with their quest towards the Hex, the pressure continues to ramp up. Given the exposure and level of competition that the Hex could give them, making it has been a big goal for the country, even despite CONCACAF’s best attempts to make it impossible for them to reach.

Along with the play of some Canadian talent abroad, it’s made for interesting weeks discussion wise as of late, as friendly and potential lineup questions dot the lips of many. When will Canada play? How will Canada play? We don’t really know yet for either, but here are some ways that both of those questions could be answered, as things start to clear up ahead of 2020.

Friendly fire?

With El Salvador already scheduling games for January and February, something we thought Canada would have been doing by now, it now leaves a state of flux heading into 2020, as Canada is yet to present a clear way to make up the 15 FIFA Point gap behind their foes from Central America. 

Given that potential ‘Camp Poutine’ friendlies would be now only a month away, before the next official international window in March, time is slowly dwindling for Les Rouges to set up an exhibition contest to continue their push towards the Hex. 

Yet, by the same token, a potential Camp Poutine is now rendered useless by El Salvador, who will face some tough opposition in Iceland and the US in a pair of games in late January and early February. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them drop both of those matches, narrowing the gap to around 10 points, which all of a sudden is a realistic target for Canada to make up over the next 2 official windows they have available to them in order to do so. 

It’s been long-stated that organizing friendlies is a decent financial burden, which is why Canada has long avoided organizing them, at least on home soil. While the effect of their reluctance is a topic for another day, they’ll need to buck that trend now, especially if they want to improve their World Cup hopes. 

But don’t expect that change to come for early on in the new year, at least on home soil. There are rumours of a January game against Costa Rica, but that would be down in the US, which wouldn’t cost Canada as much as it would if they were hosting such a game, which considering the low potential for FIFA points from out of window games, might not be worth it for them right now. 

So don’t hold your breath on any January games, at least in Canada, for the time being. It’s a risky gamble, one that will rely on El Salvador faltering (unless they somehow pull through with turning the Iceland game into a ‘training’ one, making things even more complicated…) which given the unpredictable nature of the Central American side, is not a sure bet. 

On the other hand, it only raises the stakes of March and June games, which Canada will surely organize soon enough. If they schedule the right 4 games, they can easily make up 10-20 points, which if combined with El Salvador inactivity or losses, would put them in the Hex. While it’s not ideal to be resting their fate in other nations, that’s the “beauty” of a new format, making for an entertaining sprint to the June deadline. 

The next big question will be the location of said friendlies, as it’s likely Canada plays at least 2 or 3 on the road to cut costs, with the US being a lucrative lieu for many, which is why so many South American teams play there. If they can pull through with some home friendlies, it will be a good chance to drum up some interest, but given the nature of organizing these kinds of matches, the road matches seem the likeliest avenue, at least as of now. 

Lineup Questions?

Can Canada make victories over the US the norm, not the exception? (Martin Bayzl/Canada Soccer)

Until those games come to fruition, all that’s left to do until then, besides hope for a potential Olympic U23 preparation camp, is to monitor the form of key players heading into 2020. It was a landmark year for many players, with Jonathan David having a standout campaign for Gent, Alphonso Davies making a breakthrough at Bayern, while players like Lucas Cavallini, Cyle Larin, Mark Anthony Kaye, Richie Laryea, Derek Cornelius and many more all made big strides for their respective clubs.

Along with the continued strong performances from Atiba Hutchinson, as well as the recent loan of Stephen Eustaquio to the Portuguese 1st division, Canada’s depth chart is looking strong ahead of next year, one that’s already promising to be a pivotal one for them. Whether or not they avoid the CONCACAF gauntlet is yet to be seen, but no matter what, there are going to be several competitive matches all year long, which will be huge to continue and battle-test this group of young talent. 

But while the depth chart looks solid everywhere expect centre back, there remain several questions surrounding the team, mainly based on how they set up. With Alphonso Davies’s success at Bayern coming as he fills in at left back for the Bavarian giants, as well as the versatility of fellow young star Jonathan David, it’s opened up rigorous debate on how to best set up the team, allowing them to maximize some of the talent at their disposal.

Given that the combination of the words ‘Alphonso Davies’ and ‘left back’ still elicits mixed reactions from every faction of the CanMNT following, it’s a debate unlikely to be settled any time soon. With many folk suggesting that Davies’s future with Canada sits at the same position, while others counter that his best spot is as a winger/forward, there is not much of a consensus on where the 19-year-old should play. 

For what it’s worth, him playing at wing seems to the best option, but that doesn’t mean there are other solutions, at least ones that can maximize the most of what he now offers as a defensive piece. Here is a proposition that we came up with:

The 4-5-1:

The Concept:

It’s not completely groundbreaking for an idea, as it’s really just a variation on the 4-3-3 Canada used up until the two US games, with the way that David and Davies are deployed being the only real change from the traditional setup in this case. 

By having David operating as an off the shoulder striker/inverted winger, it allows him to operate in a channel between full backs and centre backs that he thrives in. He’s creative enough to drop and link up with the midfielders as a sort of #10, but he can also play off the shoulders of defenders, pushing opposing defensive lines right back down. His penchant for playing centrally also benefits Richie Laryea, who loves to overlap down that right side, which can create some deadly overloads with David against opposing left backs. 

On the other hand, Davies is a little more withdrawn here, as he’d be used as more of a defensive winger, which is enabled by his relationship with Sam Adekugbe. Given that Davies is good at running from deep, and Adekugbe is a great overlapping threat, they can start attacks from lower down, forcing the opposing right back to decide whether to push up or to sit back to neutralize that. 

Along with a deep defensive line, one that would allow Canada’s centre backs to shine, and good pressers of the ball in Cavallini and Osorio, defensively they should be sound enough to avoid disaster. With Davies dropping back, interacting with Adekugbe in sort of a false full back relationship, along with one of David or Osorio dropping depending on the context, it allows for Canada to have a solid 4-4-2 low block, one that avoids them stretching out as they did in Orlando. 

Given that all outfield players are quite comfortable on the ball, it allows Canada to play either as a counter-attacking outfit or as a possession-based side, one that can build up from the back as well. 

Strengths:

By sitting deep, Canada avoids their centre backs getting stretched out, which as seen in Orlando, is not beneficial for them. With the speed of Cavallini, David and Davies on the counter, as well as the technical ability of many of their players, they can be versatile in the attack. 

Along with Davies’s improving defensive awareness, and the off-the-ball work of attackers Osorio (or Arfield), Cavallini and David, it allows them to be a team that isn’t fun to play against defensively, as well.

Weaknesses:

Having Davies sit deep could also backfire, as he could get caught out defending more than he’d like, denying Canada of his offensive influence. While he’s shown the stamina to be able to withstand defensive pressure before bursting the other way, he’ll be afforded less time and space to do that than he does with Bayern, where he doesn’t have to face double and triple teams as he does with Canada. 

And while the defensive low block is probably Canada’s best defensive posture, the attacking-minded full backs could cost them, especially in transition. While Piette, Kaye, Eustaquio and Hutchinson can all play a role in helping minimizing that, it could leave Canada vulnerable against speedy teams, especially if they inadvertently stray from their low block to break down deeper-lying sides.

Looking Forward

All in all, no matter what Canada ends up playing, they will need to embrace a few things to be successful against bigger sides, as we preached in our article looking forward back in November. Firstly, they need to defend in a low block, secondly, they have to use their speed to counter and press high, thirdly, they need to use their many midfielders to control the middle of the park, and lastly, they have to find a way to put that all together while also keeping up their offensive punch. 

As seen during these last 2 years, where Canada has scored in every game they’ve played in, they’ve got the ability to generate offence, but now they need to learn how to defend. After finding so much success in a low block in the first US game, the impact of a high line in the 2nd one showed why the former is the way to go, at least until Canada finds the right to defenders for the latter. 

While it won’t be easy to experiment for other ideas to improve their game, at least having that foundation to build off of will be key, as they embark on these important friendly matches. With every game until 2022 all being vital matchups, they’ll just have to find a way to improve of off what has worked so far, avoiding having experimental decisions like the one against Haiti and the US part 2 blow up as they did.

Finding a way to do that may prove to be the legacy of John Herdman on the men’s side, as he looks to return perception of his tactical ability to where it was after the 1st US game, pushing away the suggestions of being in over his head after the 2nd clash. He’s definitely got some tactical astuteness, as seen by some of his previous decisions, but by the same token, his over-experimentation has been a downfall, so managing that will be the big goal for him. 

If they do that, given the firepower that they’ve finally now got at their disposal, big things are expected. After decades of underwhelming results, Canada finally has some young talent, so it’s time to capitalize on it to drum up interest, all part of a plan that can make sure that talent like this becomes the norm, not the exception. 

Cover Photo by: Jeremy Reper (Canada Soccer)

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